I know that Steve Bannon wants to wage “war against the GOP establishment.” But some days I am not sure what that war is even about. I know it is a fight over whether the right will identify as “nationalist,” “populist,” “anti-globalization,” “anti-interventionist,” and “protectionist,” and I know roughly what those words mean. And yet, to some degree, I still don’t really get what this means, because both sides in this “war” look very similar to me: both are authoritarian, both believe that the lives of immigrants and racial minorities don’t matter terribly much, both seem to believe that rich people should control the destinies of non-rich people. While I know there is some real-world implication to the battle over “protectionism,” I cannot help but feel as if a large part of the intra-GOP war is an ideologically empty power struggle.
Consider Peter Wehner’s recent New York Times op-ed “Going Against The Republican Herd.” Wehner is a “so-called establishment Republican” horrified by the forces of Bannonism and Trumpism. He insists there is an “existential” battle within the party between “the tribalistic, angry, anti-government wing of the party” who have “embraced white identity politics,” that some have “jettisoned traditional conservatism in favor of the Trump-Bannon brand of ethnonationalism” and “developed a disdain for the hard, intricate work of governing.” These new forces, he says, are “revolutionaries” who “peddle conspiracy theories” and have a “nihilistic strain” fueled by feelings of “powerlessness, resentment, and grievance” and encouraged by “Breitbart and Alex Jones.” Wehner calls on sensible Republicans to recognize “the danger Trumpism and Bannonism pose to the principles they claim to hold dear” and longs for “leaders of courage and purpose who, in a fractious and intemperate age, believe—and can help others believe—that one of the high callings of politics is to heal our wounds rather than inflict new ones.” Wehner and Bannon therefore share the same basic view of the state of Republican politics: there is a battle going on, and it is an important one, and the stakes are high. It is the forces of tradition versus the forces of revolution. And both agree that the revolutionaries will stop at nothing. As Wehner says: “Their rage at the establishment is off the charts. They want to burn the village down.”
And yet there’s something very strange about all this talk of a battle between “elites” and “radicals” in the GOP: I don’t know what any of it actually means for the real world. It almost seems like a fight over rhetoric: will the GOP have slightly more explicit xenophobia or not? The actual implications of it are always a little murky. It seems so obvious that there’s an irreconcilable ideological difference between Bannon and Wehner: after all, both of them say there is. But one peculiar thing about Wehner’s op-ed is that, while he uses a lot of general terms about those who are “angry” versus those who believe in “healing,” he doesn’t actually say much about what the policy differences between the two forces are. The most specific concrete difference he cites is that the new conspiratorial, angry right have a slightly more favorable view of Vladimir Putin than their establishment counterparts.
Presumably, the difference between Bannon and Wehner can be boiled down to the difference between Breitbart and, say, The Weekly Standard. But the main difference between Breitbart and The Weekly Standard is that Breitbart’s headlines are in all-caps. The schism largely seems to be one of tone: will right-wing politics be brash, vulgar, and shameless or sober and polite? Will it wear a tie and a flag pin, or will it have a five o’clock shadow and three open-collared shirts? In fact, when you look at The Weekly Standard itself, we can see how illusory the ideological difference really is. Their lead article right now is about how Trump, even though he seems unprincipled and not-very-conservative, is actually governing precisely as they hope a “small government Republican” would, refusing to issue new regulations and eliminating old ones. As they note, “it can be useful to distinguish between the person of the president, who has no discernible ideology, and his presidency, which, so far, has been strikingly conservative.” That means that while there might be a difference in theory between Trump and orthodox conservatism, and while the spectacle of Trump is certainly different from anything previously known in Republican politics, in practice they are virtually identical: tax cuts for the rich, gutting environmental protections, further bloating the military.
One odd thing about Steve Bannon in particular is that while he’s completely fanatical about his ideology, it’s often a little unclear what it would actually mean if put into practice. Probably the most comprehensive guide to understanding Bannonism is BuzzFeed’s “This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World,” a transcript of a 2014 talk in which Bannon explains his basic political framework. And yet after reading it, while I understand that Bannon sees the world differently from the way orthodox conservatives see it, I don’t understand how Bannon wants to change the world in ways that differ much from what traditional conservatives want.
Consider Bannon’s perspective on capitalism. This is one of the points where Bannon differs from the rest of the GOP. He is, after all, a “protectionist” and “economic nationalist.” He also believes there is a “crisis of capitalism” and has spoken critically of “bankers.” That’s certainly not typical Republican talk! But then look at what he says about what the “crisis” of capitalism is:
I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis…. Principally in the West, but we’re expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs… When capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians’ faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
Okay, so Bannon thinks the world is in crisis while other Republicans don’t. But what does he believe in? He believes in a mixture of capitalism and Christianity. Whereas the rest of the Republican party are simply… Christians who love capitalism? I mean, I guess Bannon says he doesn’t like it when people are turned into “commodities,” and doesn’t think everything should be securitized, which is language you don’t usually hear from Wall Street types. But does that mean he wants to expand the purview of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Does it means he wants to increase the power of the SEC? Bannon was one of the few in the Trump administration who believed that rich people might need to have their taxes raised slightly, but even that was in the service of a massive tax cut for everybody else. So what are we actually talking about here? Is the difference between Bannon and Wehner the difference between whether you strangle the federal government with a tax cut for 99% of people or strangle it with a tax cut for 100% of people?
So much of the narrative around a divide between the “sensible, moderate” GOP of old and the “radical, fringe” insurgent faction seems designed to get us to forget just how radical the “moderates” have always been. Wehner is disdainful of Breitbart-ism for pushing “conspiracy theories” and “anti-truths.” But Wehner’s Republicans have spent the last decade pushing conspiracy theories about voter fraud in order to kick black people off the voter rolls, and Wehner was head speechwriter for the Bush Administration, for God’s sake, which was responsible for the deadliest set of untruths in recent American history. The idea that conservatives used to be “principled” but that people like Bannon and Trump are “unprincipled” is itself a shameless fabrication. What were these principles? When were they ever held? Were they the principles of Reagan, a man who funneled $1 million a day to death squads, worsened inequality with tax cuts to rich people, and cut social benefits for elderly, blind, and disabled people? It’s very common to hear attempts to distinguish the Good form of right-wing politics from the Bad form, but what you will rarely hear is a very clear explanation of what the differences would mean in practice for people’s lives. Unless I’m mistaken, both forms would like to see everyone kicked off food stamps, health care entirely turned over to the free market so that poor people will die from lack of coverage, and a system of mass incarceration housing millions of people.
The main obvious difference I can see between the policies of the “revolutionaries” and the “establishment” on the right is on immigration. The “establishment” are pro-business and want cheap immigrant labor, whereas the “revolutionaries” are xenophobic and want to deport every unauthorized person they find. It’s worth noting, first, that this is not really a difference between being pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant: it is a difference on the question of whether businesses should bring people here and brutally exploit them, or whether native-born Americans should be first in line to be exploited. It makes a difference in the lives of immigrants, but it’s not actually a substantive disagreement on who should hold economic power. However, it’s also important to be careful not to lapse into false nostalgia for some mythical “kind and gentle” GOP of the past. George W. Bush is known for his “compassionate” conservatism, for pushing immigration reform that would have allowed unauthorized people a path to citizenship. He’s therefore seen as representing a totally different Republican attitude toward the immigration question. But Bush was very clear at the time that, while he believed that deportation was impractical and immigration was important, he was in favor of radically strengthening control of the border. Increased border security, he said, was his first priority when it came to immigration:
First, the United States must secure its borders. This is a basic responsibility of a sovereign nation. It is also an urgent requirement of our national security. Our objective is straightforward: The border should be open to trade and lawful immigration, and shut to illegal immigrants, as well as criminals, drug dealers, and terrorists…Since I became president, we’ve have [sic] increased funding for border security by 66 percent, and expanded the Border Patrol from about 9,000 to 12,000 agents. The men and women of our Border Patrol are doing a fine job in difficult circumstances and over the past five years, they have apprehended and sent home about six million people entering America illegally… Despite this progress, we do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that. Tonight I’m calling on Congress to provide funding for dramatic improvements in manpower and technology at the border. By the end of 2008, we will increase the number of Border Patrol officers by an additional 6,000. When these new agents are deployed, we will have more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol during my Presidency…. At the same time, we are launching the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history. We will construct high-tech fences in urban corridors, and build new patrol roads and barriers in rural areas. We will employ motion sensors, … infrared cameras… and unmanned aerial vehicles to prevent illegal crossings.
Bush did eventually succeed in his goal to more than double the size of the Border Patrol. He didn’t end up passing comprehensive immigration reform, but he did achieve what he said was his first priority, which was to crack down on illegal crossings. (Obama would go even further.)
So let’s be careful before buying the GOP’s own narratives about the different ideologies of its various factions. People like Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach may be vicious in their hostility to unauthorized immigrants, but George W. Bush was no friend to them. Breitbart may be “anti-establishment” but only in the sense that it doesn’t like the people who have traditionally been in charge of the party; in terms of preserving the powers of the American ruling class, both sides are firmly in agreement. We know that all Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric was nonsense: he’s a billionaire who immediately installed a bunch of billionaires in his cabinet, and there’s a reason the Tea Party was funded by incredibly rich people. As Vanity Fair’’s Tina Nguyen writes, Steve Bannon’s revolution seems more like a “power grab” than anything substantive, and “Even Bannon’s allies suggested that the wannabe kingmaker’s insurgency lies more in populist packaging than in a real anti-establishment ideology.”
It’s important to always evaluate political conflicts by their potential real-world consequences for people, not by the different kinds of rhetoric deployed by each side. And right-wing politics is right-wing politics, whether it is christened “pro-business” or “nationalistic.” Either way, it advocates the same thing: control of the world by a small fraction of wealthy people, as everyone else subsists for a pittance, with a tiny, cruel government making no attempt to alleviate the injustices inflicted by the free market.